White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.Shelby Steele . HarperCollins, 2006.
March 24, 2009
The 2006 approval by voters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative merely marks another step along the path of a much deeper cultural shift on the part of blacks and whites. The old formulas have not worked, are not working, and definitely never will work. In his bookWhite Guilt, Shelby Steele tells us why, explains the sorry spectacle of over forty years of misguided government intervention in the lives of black people and the social devastation and erosion that “redemptive liberals,” white and black, have wreaked upon a people, undermining their earlier comparable independence and social cohesion.
Shelby Steele clearly states the real problem of the black community is one of underdevelopment. Poor leadership has failed for decades to teach that “black Americans are capable of being fully responsible for their own advancement” (60). Elsewhere, in his Bradley Lecture, Steele remarks, “Our great mistake was to begin to rely on white guilt instead of ourselves.” After the achievements of the 1960s civil rights leaders who wanted individual rights, the new generation of black militants resorted to anger, pressure, and intimidation to stigmatize white society into a debilitating sense of guilt for the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow in order to win concessions of monetary and social compensation. It worked. Both sides got what they wanted. A paltry coin. Release from stigma. But the Faustian bargain was at the expense, for many, of further self-development and self-reliance in the black community, leading to a worsening of the social problems that all peoples are prone to when they begin to blame others for their problems. Breaking out of this pernicious system is the challenge before us all.
Nowhere has the mutually destructive relationship been more blatant than in the policies of affirmative action:
“Preferential affirmative action, the classic ‘results’-oriented racial reform, tells minorities quite explicitly that they will not have to compete on the same standards as whites precisely so they can be included in American institutions without in fact achieving the same level of excellence as whites. The true concern of ‘results’ reform is the moral authority of the institution. Minority development is sacrificed to the magnanimity of the institution” (61).
As with the University of Michigan, so with all American institutions desperately seeking to distance and disassociate themselves from the racist white supremacy of the past. Steele’s critique of such practices is utterly scathing, peeling back layer upon layer of corruption, duplicity, deceit, all carried out at the expense of young people, black, white, Asian, and so on. The institution is more interested in social engineering and proving to the world that it is not implicated in racism. Sacrificial lambs on all sides.
In his dissent to the decision of the other Supreme Court members in Grutter versus Bollinger, Justice Clarence Thomas quotes a passage from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
“What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us…. I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! …And if the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … [Y]our interference is doing him positive injury” (“What the Black Man Wants,” 1865).
Steele writes that the dissent of Justice Thomas, like that of Frederick Douglass, is a “fiery and indignant demand that blacks be seen and understood first of all as human beings” (144). Paternalism, by whatever American institution, the Supreme Court or the University of Michigan, constitutes a flagrant and intolerable injustice that sends waves of disruption down through the decades and generations, overwhelming and disrupting the development and dignity of a people, all people.
Shelby Steele’s great book helps us to understand what has happened to us all and sets a new course away from the interfering good intentions that have led to extremely bad results. It is difficult to take the advice of Frederick Douglass. To do nothing. To trust in the innate capacities of human beings. To look to the individual to work out the meaning of his or her own destiny. To resist making ourselves feel good at the demeaning expense of others. Somehow we must learn a deeper meaning of justice, struggle together towards a deeper measure of understanding and life together as people, citizens, Americans, human beings. The wisdom of people like Shelby Steele and Justice Clarence Thomas will help us get there, tap into the deepest springs of human motivation and achievement.
Given Dr. Steele’s experience teaching in university English departments, I found his critique of race and gender studies in literature and education particularly striking and perceptive of the sophistries involved, having myself met on many occasions his reform-minded academic “Betty,” an educator full of misguided good intentions.
Shelby Steele’s White Guilt is a book of such penetrating insight into the dynamics of black and white misfortune and lost opportunity that no person remotely interested in the racial issues of our time should fail to read it.
If the University of Michigan is truly interested in the equal opportunity and success of black students, I challenge my alma mater to organize, fund, and promote a conference, a summit of people of wisdom, people who have two feet on the ground, as soon as possible, with the following keynote speakers, hosted by U of M Professor Carl Cohen, if he is willing: Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, Bill Cosby, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Juan Williams, and MSU Professor William B. Allen.
Incidentally, I participated in a panel discussion on MCRI at Wayne State University Law School, October 26, 2006. See Ending Racial Preferences: The Michigan Story. 2008. by Carol M. Allen and William B. Allen. I highly recommend their book on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative.
Editor, Robert Hayden’s Collected Prose. University of Michigan Press, 1984.
Alumnus ’80 & ’81
Why Voters Should Approve MCRI
Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America. John McWhorter. Gotham, 2006.
March 22, 2009
John McWhorter’s Winning the Race has a strong sociological approach to the issues of black America, surveying the history of the development of the inner cities and the welfare system, leading to the dependence that later found expression in affirmative action and racial preferences. My background being more literary in nature, I do not have the grounding for assessing McWhorter’s sociological arguments and data and will focus on his discussion of racial preference and its dynamics, of which I have personal experience, on the ground shall we say, and extensive knowledge and interest.
Referring to radical race elites and leaders, McWhorter states,
“What people like this are seeking is, sadly, not what they claim to be seeking. They seek one thing: indignation for its own sake. And that means that the alienation that they are expressing is disconnected from current reality” (5).
Highlighting the psychological drive of the protest impulse, McWhorter continues,
“This is therapeutic alienation: alienation unconnected to, or vastly disproportionate to, real-life stimulus, but maintained because it reinforces one’s sense of psychological legitimacy, via defining oneself against an oppressor characterized as eternally depraved” (6).
He refers often throughout the book to the implicit theater entailed in such attitudes and the misguided strategy of relying on such theater for advancement and self-definition, instead of “rolling their sleeves up and working out concrete plans for change” (7). Putting aside the emphasis of more traditional black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, on personal responsibility and initiative, increasingly after the 1960s civil rights generation, “the main culprit was whitey and his ‘systemic racism’” (13). I cannot help feeling it’s an old story, but, one that cannot be told too often, still today, given the continuing mutual recrimination and the evasion of the obvious.
The more interesting chapters to me deal directly with affirmative action, racial preference, and the serious damage done by race elites allowing for years the continuation of the “acting white” mentality to spread and pollute the springs of self-reliance, independence, and education for black youth, in their inmost consciousness:
“To understand that we are dealing with therapeutic alienation rather than racism brings us to implications for grappling with the black-white achievement gap in the present and future…. To set the bar lower for black students out of a sense that the achievement gap is due to socioeconomics is mistaken. Because the factor is not socioeconomic but cultural and self-perpetuating, the lowered bar only deprives black students and parents of any reason to learn how to hit the highest note. Much of the time, there is not even any way for black people to know what it would actually be to perform at that level–because they never have to” (263).
A devastating critique of a devastating system, one that all people, white and black, have participated in creating and maintaining, much to the detriment of ourselves and our young people. McWhorter’s honesty about racial matters and race preferences is truly admirable. How else can we all come to understand what the situation truly is and then decide what to do about it? Alas, one can almost count on one hand the scholars intelligent and honest enough to state simply the truth about many “black students on campus”:
“So few of them have grades or test scores high enough to qualify under the regular evaluation procedure. In response to claims from the occasional whistleblower that standards are being lowered for black students, administrators are trained to insist that this is not true. Yet, simple and readily available data show that each year, there is but a sliver of black students with the grades and test scores considered sine qua non for serious consideration if students were white or Asian” (264).
Laying the blame squarely on “teen culture” and the failure of black and white parents and leaders to have sufficiently high expectations for all students, McWhorter faces what virtually no one else in America will. It’s our fault. We’ve got the pernicious system we’ve created, along with all the social and personal destruction that goes with it. I like the way he puts it at one point: “a new sense of black identity in the sixties has led to a quiet cultural disconnect from the ‘school thing’” (273). Instead of “self-defeating cultural patterns,” McWhorter argues for the cultural patterns that produce success for all people. For decades, Caribbean and African immigrants, Asian boat people, and others who have entered urban schools have flown past the kids held back by the misguided ideas of the race elites: “As long as black students have to do only so well, they will do only so well” (295). Like Ward Connerly, John McWhorter clearly advocates expecting more of black kids, knowing only then can society and educators elicit from students their highest potential.
In the light of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) and the misleading allegations surrounding gender that have been used to scare white females into voting against it, McWhorter asks a simple question that Michigan women ought to consider: “Whites listening to defenses based on ‘diversity’ should ask themselves a simple question: Would you allow this of your own children?” (308). Cutting to the quick and ending his book on the hopeful note that black kids are every bit as capable of competing and achieving as anybody else, McWhorter quite rightly states, lampooning radical race elites who benefit from the affirmative action gravy train, “The simple fact is that America is quietly getting past race despite the best efforts of the Soul Patrol to pretend otherwise” (377).
The work of John McWhorter ought to be even more widely known than it already is in Michigan and throughout the country. On November 8th, Michigan’s concerned citizens should turn more to his understanding of what went wrong and what is required for success.
If the University of Michigan is truly interested in the equal opportunity and success of black students, I challenge my alma mater to organize a conference, a summit of people who have two feet on the ground, as soon as possible after November 8th, with the following keynote speakers, hosted by U of M Professor Carl Cohen: Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Bill Cosby, Juan Williams, and MSU Professor William Allen.
Ending racial preferences in Michigan and throughout the Nation is essential for creating an atmosphere of high and equal expectations for all our children, capable of Winning the Race, in all senses of the phrase. Together we will find our way towards a new meaning of what it is to be an American, as did Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, not white OR black, but white AND black. And all the shades of humanity beyond.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Thomas Sowell. Encounter Books, 2005.
The approval by voters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative corroborates Thomas Sowell’s observation in his Preface to the book, referring to “a growing willingness to consider views that differ from the racial orthodoxy that has prevailed largely unchallenged from the 1960s onward in intellectual circles and in the popular media.” The education, government, business, and media elites of Michigan all banded together to hammer into the population the same old tiresome racial orthodoxy, to no avail. The people had had over forty years of it, experienced it in lived life, and would have no more of it. By an overwhelming fifty-eight percent, they voted to change direction, try something different from the orthodoxy of the liberal elites. Thomas Sowell’s book Black Rednecks and White Liberals suggests further lines for reconsideration and change.
In this context, I believe the most interesting essays in the book are “The Real History of Slavery” and “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies.” Rejecting the Kunte Kinte view of slavery found in Alex Haley’s Roots, Sowell emphasizes that slavery was a worldwide phenomenon practiced by virtually all peoples and nations, not at all exclusively by white Western nations. Sowell perceives why the contemporary discussion of slavery is usually so distorted:
“Why would anyone wish to arbitrarily understate an evil that plagued mankind for thousands of years, unless it was not this evil itself that was the real concern, but rather the present-day uses of that historic evil? Clearly, the ability to score ideological points against American society or Western civilization, or to induce guilt and thereby extract benefits from the white population today, are greatly enhanced by making enslavement appear to be a peculiarly American, or a peculiarly white, crime” (111).
All of this feeds directly into the radical politics of affirmative action racial preferences. It skews our understanding of the real historical evils of slavery and substitutes emotional Hollywood distortions for the complexity of human experience.
Narrowing the history of slavery from the long record reaching back over three thousands years, in Europe, Africa, China, India, every region of the world, it was nevertheless only the Western world that developed moral compunctions against slavery and launched a “bitter worldwide struggle, which lasted more than a century, to destroy the elaborate systems and institutions for the ownership and sale of human beings” (114). Of particular interest is Sowell’s discussion of slavery under Islamic societies, in North Africa and elsewhere, which enslaved far more people than were ever brought to the Western hemisphere. Cervantes in Don Quixote has an incredible account of his five-year enslavement by Muslims after the battle of Lepanto in 1571. Sowell’s discussion throws interesting light on the conditions to which European and African slaves found themselves subjected. Many millions of Europeans and Africans were enslaved over the centuries in Islamic countries, facts that ought to be studied much more after 9/11.
Similarly, Sowell emphasizes it was black tribal leaders who practiced slavery “before, during, and after the white man arrived” (120). Connecting the real history of slavery with its distorted uses by those who today want to fight for racial spoils, Sowell writes,
“Yet what was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil, not only in Western societies but also in other societies subject to Western control or influence. This was possible only because the anti-slavery movement coincided with an era in which Western power and hegemony were at their zenith, so that it was essentially European imperialism which ended slavery. This idea might seem shocking, not because it does not fit the facts, but because it does not fit the prevailing vision of our time” (134-135).
Visions hang on beyond their time, beyond their usefulness, such has been the case with racial preferences, which are predicated on a distorted sense of actual historical slavery. By addressing the real history of slavery, Sowell restores the proper perspective needed to come to terms with the complexity of American slavery and the perspective needed to find new ways to work together today. He observes at one point “Africans did not treat Europeans any better than Europeans treated Africans. Neither can be exempted from moral condemnation applied to the other” (139). If Michigan is seeking a new understanding of equality, one place to begin might be to realize, as Sowell says elsewhere, the prevailing vision of slavery of the “morally self-anointed” is wrong. To find a new future, we must recognize our understanding of the past is flawed, reconsider its complexity, understand no one is blameless, and move forward together.
In “Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies,” Sowell reconsiders the prevailing vision of the actual history of black education and demonstrates that it too is much different from the skewed account so many politically motivated radicals and liberals use to justify failed educational programs and policies:
“The quest for esoteric methods of trying to educate black children proceeds as if such children had never been successfully educated before, when in fact there are concrete examples, both from history and from our own times, of schools that have been successful in educating black children, including those from low-income families. Yet the prevailing educational dogma is that you simply cannot expect children who are not middle class to do well on standardized tests, for all sorts of sociological and psychological reasons” (203).
Sowell further states that this dogma is false for both black and other minority children and discusses a number of outstanding schools reaching from after the Civil War to the present, such as the M Street School, later to become known as Dunbar High School in Washington, DC.
After a long survey of these and other schools, Sowell writes,
“What the record of successful minority schools shows, both in history and among contemporary schools, is that educational achievement is not foredoomed by economic or social circumstances beyond the school grounds, as the education establishment constantly strives to prove. Poverty, broken homes, and unruly environments are not to be ignored, downplayed or apologized for. But neither are the failings of others proof that the education establishment is doing its job right. Perfect students with perfect parents in a perfect society cannot learn things that they are not being taught–and that includes an increasing number of basic things in our public schools” (217).
While the howls of protest to this passage might be the usual ones from the education establishment, I would argue his stress on working with students where they are and expecting “work and discipline” (221) from them is a no-nonsense approach that ought to be tried more often than not, instead of the latest pitying, enabling, undermining educational theory that asks little or nothing of kids and gets little or nothing in return. Higher expectations of their families, whether single parent or not, ought to play a part, though Sowell dismisses the idea that without parental involvement there is no hope for the child, insisting that the individual student can take charge of his or her life and achieve despite the family situation.
Excoriating the victimhood approach to education, Sowell laments that “the history of successful black schools has attracted virtually no interest from either historians or educators. That history does not advance any contemporary political agenda, though it might help advance the education of a whole generation of black students” (225). Far from blaming all educational problems of black students on racism, the usual liberal scapegoat, Sowell has no patience with such facile excuses and lays the blame squarely on the students themselves: “By and large, black students do not work as hard as white students, much less Asian students” (228). He goes on to blame a culture of non-achievement, comparing it to red-neck and lower-class whites and Asians who suffer from “the same counterproductive attitudes toward education” which are “just as self-defeating.” Failure is not restricted to any particular pigmentation or race, nor are the real reasons for such failure always unique to any particular race.
In a fine section of this chapter on education, Sowell highlights the views of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, documenting that their attitudes on educational expectations and other matters were much closer than the common politicized opinion today would have it. The necessary resources and exemplary individuals run rife throughout black history and experience. I would argue what is needed is for more people to hear and respect such scholars as Thomas Sowell, learn from them, and work together to chart a new path together into the future.
In his conclusion Sowell essentially challenges educational leaders and students “to work harder and abandon the counterproductive notion that seeking educational excellence is ‘acting white’” (244). He ends his essay on black education in a way that calls to mind Bill Cosby’s recent addresses wherein Cosby has said more studies are not needed. The problems are known. The black community is in crisis and needs to take action: “Despite the heartening achievements of some black schools, which have repeatedly demonstrated what is possible even with children from low-income backgrounds, the general picture of the education of black students is bleak. Much of what is said–and not said–about the education of black students reflects the political context, rather than the educational facts. Whites walk on eggshells for fear of being called racists, while many blacks are preoccupied with protecting the image of black students, rather than protecting their future by telling the blunt truth. It is understandable that some people are concerned about image, about what in private life might be expressed as: “What will the neighbors think?” But, when your children are dying, you don’t worry about what the neighbors think” (245).
Though bleak, attitudes are changing, will continue to change, will, as Ward Connerly has remarked, take time to change, creating a new climate of expectations and performance, on all sides. The passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative registers such change. Neighbors of goodwill do exist, are distressed, worried, and concerned, willing to help, where they can, if allowed. It needs to be said much more often that 14% of black voters approved the proposal. They are people who want much of what Sowell discusses in terms of education for their children and community. These two essays ought to be read by anyone serious about assessing where we are after the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and where, together, we are all going from here.
Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure that are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It. Juan Williams. Crown, New York. 2006.
The major shortcoming of Juan Williams book is that he doesn’t go far enough. But more of that later. It should first be said that he goes very far indeed, saying much that has needed to be said for years, if not decades. No mean achievement. The subtitle itself sets out much of the structure of the book: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure that are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It. Williams’ discussion is built around Bill Cosby’s speech in 2004 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as well as Cosby’s numerous other talks throughout the country since then, including Detroit.
Williams laments the lack of any real leaders in the black community in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom in Williams’ view shared a commitment to black self-reliance and self-determination:
“In its place is a tired rant by civil rights leaders about the power of white people–what white people have done wrong, what white people didn’t do, and what white people should do. This rant puts black people in the role of hapless victims waiting for only one thing–white guilt to bail them out” (32).
He lambasts both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as never having really accomplished much, in a way similar to John McWhorter’s scathing reference to “black theatrics.” Returning often to Bill Cosby’s speeches, concurring with Cosby, Williams states, “At some point, people have to take a personal accounting, turn away from any self-defeating behavior, and be sure they are doing everything in their power to put their families and their communities in a position to prosper and advance” (43). Jackson and Sharpton have “slowed the emergence of any new model of national black political leadership” (47). Juan Williams never suggests that Bill Cosby is in a sense the model–Cosby himself has repeatedly stated he’s an entertainer, not a leader, but merely someone sick and tired of it all and speaking out to wake people up to how bad things really are. Williams’ book goes a long way towards helping people do just that by facing the unpleasant facts.
Some of those facts include the diversion of attention and resources from the truly pressing needs of the black community to a futile fight for reparations for slavery. The chapter title says it all: “The Reparations Mirage.”
In a chapter on education, Juan Williams frames his discussion with Cosby’s provocative challenge, “What the hell good is Brown v. Board of Education if nobody wants it?” The dismal statistic of a 50 percent black drop out rate from high school, the best students pilloried as “acting white,” behavior way out of control, and so on, all adds up to deep and endemic crisis for young black people and the community. Cosby, Williams, and others are to be applauded for caring enough about the students themselves that they have publicly confronted and discussed what the issues really are, unlike those who, as Cosby cuts to the quick, are worried “they would lose their gig.” Indeed, there are black leaders and school officials who deserve to, and should, lose their “gig,” for the sake of the children and the future good of the black community.
On the national level in regard to black crime, Juan Williams similarly asserts there has been a failure of leadership:
“Never a word was spoken about the need for black Americans to take up their own war on drugs and on crime as a matter of personal responsibility…. All the silence could not blind anyone to the neon lights flashing sad facts about the severity of black crime. By 2004 federal data showed that black Americans–13 percent of the population–accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent of murders. Most of the victims of these violent criminals were their fellow black people. This legitimate fear of violent crime by black people spread into every corner of the nation” (116).
To these sad facts, Cosby and Williams rightly emphasize the utter crisis that confronts black America, all of America, and the need to wake up, take personal responsibility, and begin at the most basic level of society, with rebuilding the black family and community, citing the past in about 1950 when 78% of black children were raised in two-parent homes, compared to today with approximately only 34%. Williams also repeatedly emphasizes Cosby’s other major points, education and hard work, giving many inspiring examples.
Part of that rebuilding involves confronting the glorification of violence and sex in hip-hop and rap music and videos. Increasingly widely criticized, and justly, by many people, black and otherwise, for the misogyny and demeaning portrayals and exploitation of women, Williams discusses a number of disturbing and shocking incidents and rappers, highlighting that again black leaders, by failing to speak out and condemn “the corruption of rap for all these years” has “resulted in real damage to the most vulnerable of black America–poor children, boys and girls, often from broken homes” (133).
Throughout his book, Juan Williams demonstrates a firm command of the history of black people in America, the heroic struggle for freedom and dignity. Bringing it alive for black people today, he shows how black history is indeed relevant to the current problems of phony leadership and community crisis. He seems to be saying the resources are there in the past and in the people; we need to do a better job of drawing on the best and striving to live up to it; we need leaders who can set the right standards, point us in the right direction, and demand we struggle for the mountain top.
My only misgiving with his book is that he seems studiously to avoid the subject of affirmative action, which I believe is a significant part of the problem, undermining self-determination and providing false excuses for failure or the lack of personal development. Unlike John McWhorter who directly takes on affirmative action, Williams may feel it’s best just to discuss the need for personal and community responsibility, cultural improvement.
I would argue the psychological chains binding the wrists of the black community must be cut, if any true progress is to be made. After all, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), up for a vote in the very same year Williams publishes his book, will almost certainly pass and quite probably help further lead to a nationwide end of racial preference. Williams ignores the entire issue. It seems to me that Ward Connerly, Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and others are more perceptive in this regard, kicking the destructive, misbegotten crutch away. But for anyone interested in an insightful survey and analysis of the issues that will remain and must be confronted on November 8th, Juan Williams’ Enough may be one of the best places to begin.
Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences. Ward Connerly.
A Courageous Man and a Brilliant Book…. March 25, 2000
In Creating Equal, Ward Connerly returns the *human* dimension to the realities of race in America. Where so often what the poet Robert Hayden called “race rhetoric” substitutes for thought and dialogue, Connerly confronts long-held affirmative action doctrine with compelling insight into the pervasive devastation race preferences have actually had for all people. His emphasis on the necessity of basic human virtue and morality stands as both an indictment of us all and a call to struggle together toward a new vision of what it means to be an American.
At last someone other than a radical black or white “civil rights professional” has found a way to speak to these issues and reach all Americans–not merely the campus crowd.
Connerly rightly deserves to be more widely known not merely as an opponent of race preferences but rather as a matchless defender of free speech and conscience, a cause for which he has also suffered dearly at one university after another throughout our country.
Whatever shape our future will take regarding race, Ward Connerly’s personal and public odyssey will be part of the answer, as it is a clear sign for renewed hope that reason and sanity may yet prevail.
A Dream Deferred : The Second Betrayal of Black Freedom in America. Shelby Steele.
Reawakening the Dream…. December 7, 2000
This morning, sometime around three or four AM, I woke up thinking about Shelby Steele’s A Dream Deferred. I read it a number of months ago and have been wanting to write a brief note about it. There are so few intelligent, reasonable, sane voices speaking about racial matters in America I feel it as a duty to try to acknowledge those who are so scorned by the forces of both white and black extremist liberalism. The thought that impelled me out of bed was that I owe it to my memory of the best friend I’ve ever had in my life, who happened to be black, long deceased and sorely missed. So I struggle for words, knowing I will never meet that high mark. Others may criticize Mr. Steele for emphasizing this and underplaying that, but I want to praise his thoughtful probing of the dynamics of affirmative action and how it assuages white guilt while keeping some black people from developing their highest potential. As a former college English instructor, I occasionally had minority students who were accustomed to being handed A’s and were shocked to receive C’s. Repeated experience convinced me that affirmative action was part of the problem. They lacked the self-discipline and responsibility that Steele extolls: “Very often those who educate poor blacks feel excused from the responsibilities of high expectations and academic rigor by the very conditions that make such expectations mandatory.”
My students had had years of misguided low expectations from both teachers and administrators and had ultimately internalized them. I recall one student telling me he had to have a grade higher than a C. When I responded that he should read the Harbrace Handbook from cover to cover and do as many of the exercises as possible, he stared at me in disbelief. I encouraged him to be gentle with himself and to expect to retain only perhaps sixty to eighty percent of his study but that with time and continual effort he would achieve a more sophisticated level of literacy.
Having started as a TA in the early 1980s when most students in writing classes received the C they deserved, I found it difficult to hand out largely all B’s, while the pressure for all A’s sent me looking for another way to make a living so as not to participate in the fraud of “higher” education. Misguided white guilt only complicates matters for serious, capable minority students and makes it all the more unlikely they’ll be called upon to strive to develop their abilities to the highest degree possible. Steele perceptively touches on how university administrators are exacerbating this decline.
On another note, Steele states “to be human is to be responsible” and profoundly probes the intricacies of human motivation, responsibility, and the ways in which affirmative action and the thinking of politically correct race elites erode individual agency:
“Race should *never* play a role in social reform for many reasons, not least of which is that it is *always* used to help people avoid full agency for their fate. It always transforms the responsibility that free minorities should carry into a commodity that others will use for their own moral power. Race absolutely corrupts those who use it for redemption and absolutely weakens those who use it for advancement” (112).
To all of which I say, “amen.” I hope, indeed struggle to hope, that men like Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly, Thomas Sowell, and others will find the resources to continue to set a new course from the lamentable situation that plagues race relations today, especially in the university, though the struggle against patronizing white guilt for true individual responsibility and achievement exists in all walks of life. It seems to me that it is a struggle that must be fought primarily by intelligent blacks and minorities who have had enough of the insult of preferential treatment to stand up and fight for the unquestionable respect and honor they so rightly deserve and merit.